Thirty years of Out to Lunch

David Bullard looks back over his three decades of column writing


This week marks the 30th birthday of the Out to Lunch column. Or I think it does because it was on the 20th March 1994 that the column first appeared in the Sunday Times Business Times. Of course, it may have been the 27th March but since the Sunday Times have obliterated all online memory of me it’s a bit difficult to verify. But what I do know is that the first column was published before the democratic election in 1994 making it, as was said on the cover of the first, best selling book, “older than democracy itself” in South Africa.

So forgive some self indulgence this week but you may want to stay with me as I reveal some inner secrets which I was going to reserve for my forthcoming ‘Unauthorised autobiography’ but haven’t managed to get beyond page 32 yet despite the promise of a hefty advance payment.___STEADY_PAYWALL___

It’s not often that someone who has never studied journalism or gone through the cadet journo mill at a large circulation newspaper gets not only a regular column but also a mugshot and a byline. So I was rather surprised when the then editor of the Sunday Times, Business Times, Kevin Davie, suggested at a Christmas Party in December of 1993 that I might want to think about contributing a column in the new year.

I did think about it and asked the obvious question….are you going to pay me? To which they said yes and so we were in business. The column began as a fortnightly column with some emphasis on the financial markets but that became very dull so my brief was extended to cover anything I thought might lure readers into the third section (Appointments, Classified Ads, Jobs etc) of the Business Times.

The column seemed to prove popular with readers and was soon promoted to a weekly column. Since I was given carte blanche to write whatever I want I grew bolder and decided that the whole point of having a column in the best-selling English language Sunday newspaper was to stir the pot a bit. So before long the response to my contributions (both hostile and friendly) were dominating the letters page which seemed to please my paymasters. Back in the days of print media that was the equivalent of what we now call ‘click-bait’.

Since my mugshot also appeared alongside my column I was recognised in the street after a few months and found, to my delight, that if I hadn’t booked a table at The Grillhouse in Rosebank on a thursday night then Joel Katz (the owner) would have a member of staff make one available much to the annoyance of the patiently waiting queue. Suddenly I had the heady sensation of minor celebrity.

None of this went down terribly well with established media hacks like Anton Harber, Chris Roper and Max du Preez who were apoplectic that a mere bond options trader could get a job as a columnist, appear on regular talk radio shows and command R15 000 a night as a celebrity MC at some very swanky corporate functions. But journalism has always been a tall-poppy syndrome business and the criticism never bothered me in the least. This was probably because I never took myself or what I was doing terribly seriously since I regarded it at the time as a sideline.

My main job was trading in bond option derivatives and that business was doing well enough for me to not give a hoot what the Harbers, Ropers and Du Preez’s thought. In vulgar language it gave me the necessary FU money to write whatever I wanted (legal niceties always observed) and not be too bothered about death threats or threats to sue me for defamation from oversensitive politicians.

I cannot see the point of writing a column if you are into self censorship or if you are terrified somebody may possibly be offended by what you have written. I’m with Kingsley Amis on this who said:

“If you can’t annoy somebody, there is little point in writing”.

But then along came 2008 and the column that got me sacked and labelled a ‘racist’. The column ‘Uncolonised Africa wouldn’t know what it was missing’ was written on April 1st and appeared in the April 6th edition of the Sunday Times. This would suggest that various sub-editors and editors had plenty of opportunity to read it but it apparently slipped through the editorial system and appeared on the page with a headline that I had not written. A publishing miracle.

As one of the pioneer victims of cancel culture I was widely named and shamed and my enemies in the media took great delight in putting the boot in. I suddenly became known as the “controversial columnist David Bullard” in the print and radio media and even those who had supped at my table reacted as though I had just farted if they had the misfortune to meet me in a shopping mall.

For a short while it was all a bit depressing and I was reminded of that wonderful episode in ‘Fawlty Towers’ where Basil threatens Polly saying “I’ll ruin you…..you’ll never waitress in Torquay again”. I managed to edge Mad Bob Mugabe off the front pages of the newspapers at the time and my wife and I drove around the Northern suburbs of Joburg cutting down posters of me which we thought might come in handy later for the David Bullard Out to Lunch Museum.

Before I got the chop in April 2008 I had rented and paid for a villa in Umbria, Italy for a holiday with friends and family and since nobody in Rome would have the slightest idea who I was I decided to go ahead with the holiday as planned. It was the best decision I ever made because when I returned, bronzed and slim, I had four job offers waiting from publishers who were keen to employ a ‘controversial columnist’. In other words, somebody who wasn’t about to call a spade ‘a metallic, hand held digging device popular with colonialists’.

I was reliably informed by my inside contacts that the Sunday Times switchboard was frantic following my April 10th sacking after fourteen years as a columnist with readers wishing to cancel their subscriptions on the basis that the Sunday Times had demonstrated that they weren’t too keen on freedom of speech after all. I take no pleasure in that now and I am convinced that the decision to sack me (I had already had my offer to resign declined) was purely political and the Sunday Times management weakly caved in. A few weeks earlier the ANC had threatened to remove all advertising for government positions from the Sunday Times unless they stopped being so critical of the ruling party.

The company urgently needed a white man’s scalp and who better than the chap who had suggested in print that the ANC were nothing more than a ‘disorganised crime syndicate’ long before the fact became patently obvious to the rest of the nation? My suspicions were confirmed when Pallo Jordan emerged from the woodwork and put the boot in saying that South Africa doesn’t need people like me in the country; we have enough racists already. Jordan was later to become famous as one of the long list of ANC ‘luminaries’ who lay claim to a fake doctorate.

So thirty years and still going strong thanks to some brave editors, many loyal readers (past and present) and the belief among many of us that a) telling a few home truths is good for democracy and

b) some people who ought to know better really need to develop a sense of humour.


I had an inkling that I might be in for the chop as early as November 2007. For ten years I was the master of ceremonies for the Sunday Times’s prestigious Top100 companies awards. This was a huge, expensive black tie shindig held every year at the Sandton Convention Centre. There were lots of awards and my brief as MC was to keep the evening moving along smoothly and throw in a few good ad libs to keep the audience chuckling. The audience was made up of the creme de la creme of the business world and their partners. It was a schmooze-fest of note.

Having not blotted my copy book for nine consecutive years I had every confidence that the tenth year would be no different. The final award of the evening was for the Lifetime Achiever which had gone to people like Donald Gordon in the past. In 2007 though the folks at the Sunday Times decided it should go to the 89 year old Nelson Mandela (having inexplicably ignored him previously).

So when the time to announce the winner came and an expectant hush descended over the 500 strong audience I played it for all it was worth. And the winner of this year’s Sunday Times Lifetime Achiever award is….(pause for dramatic effect).....Mr Nelson Mandela, who couldn’t be here this evening sadly because he is at home watching Survivor on telly. For some reason he seems addicted to programmes about people stuck on remote islands.

The entire room erupted in raucous laughter except for one table. At that table sat the management of the Sunday Times with publisher Mike Robertson giving me very dirty looks indeed. And thus the seed was sown.